Visiting a farm: Other ways to support family farmers
All summer and fall, I see friends and family posting photos from their family outings to farms where they pick pounds and pounds of berries and apples, meet farm animals, or participate in other farm-y fun. Even if I don’t get to go myself, sometimes I’m lucky and get to share in their bounty with fresh pies, crisps, cider or frozen creations all winter long.
Farmers all over the country rely on the income these activities generate to keep their farms operational. A bit closer to my home in Massachusetts, Michael Marini, who helps run his family’s farm told The Boston Globe, “Today, to be viable, you have to do everything you can to bring customers here.’’ Another recent article in The Globe says,
Agritourism - or, as it’s sometimes termed, agritainment - is an increasingly important factor in Massachusetts farming, and many local farms have had to diversify to stay alive. The good news is, it’s working. Scott J. Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, cites USDA figures that found an 800 percent increase in the estimated value of agritourism in the state between 2002 and 2007. In the same time period, he says, 'We had a 27 percent increase in the number of farms.’
This year, I decided to take part in one farm experience that I’ve always wanted to check out — visiting a corn maze. I had a hard time picking from all the different options (there are at least ten of them in Massachusetts alone), but given it was fall foliage time and my wife and I enjoy rides out to Central Massachusetts anyway, we went with one in Sterling. The fact that they also have a bit of an over-the-top pirate theme to this year’s maze may or may not have also played a role (arrrrr, I admit, it did!).
Before we walked the plank or even entered the maze, we visited a nearby orchard and farmstand where you can pick your own apples or get some lunch or prepared treats made from local foods. I had a sandwich, but the star of my meal was one of my fall favorites: fresh apple cider. Unfortunately, my other fall love, cider doughnuts, were absent from the menu so hopes for dessert were dashed.
I’d never visited a corn maze before and have to admit I was a little scared, probably due to flashbacks from the hedge maze in the movie The Shining and due to a recent news report about a young family panicking and calling 911 after getting lost during their visit to another corn maze in Massachusetts. Once I got there and saw how many people were traversing the corridors in the corn, a different fear replaced my initial hesitations — would we be able to actually succeed and find the pirate ship after traversing miles of paths? Or would I hang my head in shame as I was outwitted by the groups of teenagers who'd somehow made their way to the end?
A brief pirate video set the scene and we headed into the corn. Right off, we took an extended series of wrong turns, and noticed immediately that we'd be seeing the same people over and over again as we all figured out the right way to go. After a while, I started to wonder if there was a right way to go. Some raised lookout bridges made it even more frustrating — it seemed like we were so close, but we were hopeless in making it any closer to the finish line. The corn seemed like a beautiful backdrop, but once I was in the midst of the paths, I had to wonder if Blackbeard’s design was just too tough.
We had water bottles and thankfully they did have a couple water stations, because as the hours dragged on, I needed them. We found ourselves continually ending up at a play area with activities for children, set up on the outskirts of the maze. My frustration grew. From my vantage point I could see the parking area — I could just give up on the whole maze idea and make a nice straight line for our car! But as your humble narrator, I knew I'd want to be honest with you, my faithful farmaid.org readers, and I didn’t want to live with the shame of defeat. And hearing the happy celebrations of the people who made it to the pirate ship inspired us to give it one last shot.
They instructed us that completing the maze could take anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours (or more), so we still held out hope of crossing the finish line with our heads held high. Thankfully, we got a little bit of help along the way. As we walked up the stairs of one of those lookouts, another desperate looking couple was quizzing a maze worker on the best way to proceed. Surely my dignity could stay intact, even if I listened in, it's not like I was the one asking for help! Armed with these tips, we made good progress (from where we were, we needed to take five lefts in a row — really, it was that simple all along?!) before coming across another worker. This time, I did ask for more advice (that pirate ship still seemed so far away). I was totally willing to trade some humiliation for a lack of frustration, so onward we explored, armed with our tips!
Finally, the finish line — we'd conquered the maze (with a little help)! My wife and I rolled the dice to get our official pirate titles (no surprise, we were both scalawags), banged a huge gong to celebrate our victory (possibly the best part of the day) and made our way over to the ship and took in the lovely view across the corn fields. A delicious cup of hot apple cider made victory all the more sweet — pure autumnal satisfaction!
A pretty drive back to the Boston area on back roads, passing by lovely farmland while we reminisced about the challenge of the maze was a relaxing way to end the day. Suddenly, I surprised my wife with a sharp turn into a parking spot. Another orchard with another farmstand, this one with a sign that promised fresh cider doughnuts! We each ordered a couple (cinnamon sugar on them? Don't mind if I do!) and devoured them. Local heirloom tomatoes and squashes are great and all, but that day I think I pledged allegiance to a well-made cider doughnut as the best kind of local food. (Ask me again next spring when the first asparagus and berries are available and I will probably have changed my mind though.)
I'm happy that farms have other attractions besides their crops to bring people onto the farm. We get to enjoy a tiny slice of the sights, sounds and smells of life on the farm and they get much-needed additional revenue to keep growing all those other foods we need. Perhaps I’ve got a new fall corn maze tradition and maybe I’ll pick my own apples to whip up some cider and doughnuts for myself.
What's your favorite thing to do at farms? Pick berries? Apples? Pet goats?
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